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US set to reposition forces in Iraq after strike on Soleimani

The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq is set to reposition forces throughout the country after the Iraqi parliament urged international troops to leave over the weekend.
U.S. military vehicles are seen in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari - S1AEULMKDCAB

The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq is set to reposition forces throughout the country, but it will not withdraw. The Iraqi parliament urged international troops to leave over the weekend after President Donald Trump approved a drone strike that took the life of top Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani. 

“In due deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement,” Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely wrote in a letter to Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, as first reported by the Washington Post.

A US defense official confirmed to Al-Monitor the letter was authentic, which indicated that there would be an “increase in helicopter travel” as US and coalition forces moved throughout Iraq. US forces had already increased force protection measures over the weekend.

“There’s been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon this afternoon. Esper said the United States would follow the “laws of armed conflict” in selecting targets against Iran.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said the letter was a draft released by mistake after it was shared with Iraqi officials, indicating that the United States meant to communicate that the Pentagon would be moving forces throughout the country, but was “poorly worded.”

There will be no onward movement by US troops, Milley said, which could indicate a US withdrawal. The official who spoke to Al-Monitor said there is no timeline for the extraction of US forces. In the draft letter, Seely, the US commander, said troops will leave “during hours of darkness” to offset “any perception that we may be bringing more coalition forces” back into Iraq. 

Seely wrote to his Iraqi counterpart that the decision was made to “respect your sovereign decision,” a reference to Sunday’s nonbinding vote that was endorsed by caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in November amid ongoing anti-government protests.

But amid today’s miscommunication, a former top commander of the effort to defeat IS told Al-Monitor on Sunday, before the letter’s release, that the United States and Iraq could have had a chance to come to an accommodation sooner about a smaller US presence to manage the terror threat.

“This is where they need to sit across the table from each other and have a conversation about how much is acceptable versus how much is required,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who commanded the defeat-IS campaign until 2016, told Al-Monitor on Sunday. “I think that they could have probably found a reasonable accommodation if they were really interested in that.”

Iran had launched a series of attacks on American forces in recent weeks, culminating in the Dec. 27 rocket strikes that killed a US contractor at a base in Kirkuk, Iraq. The attack prompted Trump to approve the drone attack that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Soleimani.

Mahdi, the Iraqi prime minister, called those strikes an illegal act and a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

“I think the Iraqi people don’t want us to leave,” Esper said. “Iran wants to control it as a proxy state,” suggesting intimidation played a role in Sunday’s parliamentary vote. Many Shiite lawmakers, he said, voted “at the point of a gun.”

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